Grief, Loss and Gifted
by Heather Boorman, LICSW, LCSW, and Co-Founder of The Fringy Bit
Whether we believe it or not, Spring has sprung. Often, we think of new growth, new life, and renewal, but spring can also hold an underpinning of grief and loss. As soon as the weather warms and the sun shines longer, we begin to speak of summer plans, the end of the school year, graduations. While all of these things are fantastic, they also signify loss. And every loss needs to be grieved. Like many things, these losses can feel bigger and more complicated for our gifted kids, which begs the question: how can we help our gifted kids navigate loss?
Recognize that gifted kids can grieve many losses, not just deaths. In truth, all of us grieve many things: a change in a job, moving, the end of a relationship, the end of a sport’s season. Grief is a part of life. Due to the intense natures of many of our gifted kids, they can grieve even more things than we would ever imagine. They can grieve growing out of their favorite shirt, a change in their parent’s work schedule, the realization that superheroes are fictional (at least until one of our gifted kids develops an injectable serum that actually changes humans into web-slinging, partial spiders). What feels like a loss to your child, is a loss. It can be easy to minimize these losses from our adult viewpoints, but the loss is real to them. Allow them to grieve it.
Recognize that grief is crazy-making for anyone, and intensely crazy-making for intense kids. One of my favorite frameworks of grief, from the book, The Journey Through Grief and Loss, describes it in 3 phases, the second of which he labels “the second storm”. Such a perfect description of the twisting, turning, disheveling, intense emotions that crash into you when you’re in this phase of grief. Of course, depending on the degree of the loss, the intensity of this second storm varies, but know that anger, sadness, despair, anxiety, numbness, physical illness, fatigue, fear are all normal. It can feel like you’re being tossed around from one moment to the next. Our gifted kids can feel this especially intensely. Allow them to. Expect behaviors to be tumultuous, at best, as they move through grief. Remember that a child or teen’s behavior is a form of communication. Figure out what they are trying to communicate. Validate that they feel crazy.
Give hope. Validate that they feel crazy, but provide them with the hope and assurance that it is temporary. They aren’t actually crazy; they’re grieving. At some point this loss won’t feel as big as it does right now. Let them feel it, but also let them know they won’t be stuck in the storm forever.
Gifted kids will understand grief differently than other kids. Shortly after my dad died, my oldest son, who was barely 7 at the time, appeared particularly sad one night. He said, “I just feel so bad for Grandma Farm. She’s lost 4 of her kids and 2 husbands. She must be so sad.” Gifted kids are going to be able to see the impact on a broader scope than more typically wired kids. Allow space for them to grieve that, too.
Gifted kids’ grief might not last on the timeframe you’d expect. I’ve worked with several gifted kids who have broken down in raw, sobbing grief when talking about their pet who had died years and years before. Allow them to feel it. Grief has its own time table, which will be different for each person. Sometimes it will seem longer than you think it should and sometimes it will seem shorter than you’d expect. Kids often grieve on a quicker schedule, but then re-grieve as they hit a new developmental stage and the loss and change takes on new meaning.
Help your child find a way to do something with their grief. Rituals are fantastically helpful. Every year on my dad’s birthday we get him birthday balloons. Have a special end-of-the-school-year picnic. Have a special place where you stop and pick up an ice cream cone on the way home from summer camp each summer. Anything that creates tradition and space to honor the loss will help your child move through it
Be open and expressive with your own grief. We often want to protect our kids from pain, but if they don’t learn how to grieve from us, how are they going to learn it? Grief is a part of life. Sometimes a part of daily life. It’s ok to show our own emotions. It models to our kids how to move through grief. It gives them permission to grieve openly. I was an emotional hurricane when my dad died. I will be an emotional hurricane when my kids near graduation and head off for parts unknown. It’s helpful for them to see that.
Reassure them that they will always be taken care of. In the midst of the hurricane, kids still need to know that they are safe and will be ok. Reassure them that even if you are being emotionally tossed around in the storm, you’ll make sure they will be looked after. And you will be fine too.
And the best way to help your child navigate loss? Help yourself, first. Take care of yourself. Show them how to grieve well. If you aren’t filled up, you can’t possibly help someone else. You will all get through these losses, and you’ll probably end up more resilient on the other side.
Heather is a therapist, writer, and speaker with Boorman Counseling by day, and mom to 3 “fringy kids” by night. She and her husband provide REAL support to parents who love a differently wired child (gifted, 2e, ASD, SPD, ADHD, etc) through their podcast, blog, and online community, The Fringy Bit. Visit her at www.thefringybit.com or www.boormancounseling.com
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